According to Ubisoft, Evie is the stealthier of Assassin's Creed Syndicate's two protagonists. By this, they mean she can turn invisible. In a room, on the street, up a roof, all she needs to do is crouch on the spot to become a ghostly Animus outline. Let's pick that apart for a second. The Animus is Assassin's Creed's in-fiction tool for reconciling the realities of game design with Ubisoft's desire for open, historical worlds. Wander into a map's outer edge, and the Animus warns you're straying too far from the subject's genetic memory. It's the designers setting boundaries, and using a magical sci-fi computer to express them.
Put simply, the Animus is Ubisoft's tool for maintaining immersion while still guiding the player's hand. It's part UI; part misdirection. So what's actually happening when Evie turns invisible? We see the Animus remove her solid form from the world, but what does that look like in the historical memory that—in the fiction—the device is simulating? I am crouched in a well-lit hallway, and a guard is looking in my direction. What is he seeing? If it's nothing, how does that work? Maybe he's so embarrassed at the sight of an assassin so obviously in plain view that he ignores it out of knee-jerk politeness. If that were the case, Assassin's Creed Syndicate would be the most accurate depiction of British life in any medium.
Yes, I realise that I'm worrying about the realism of a series that, previously, had you fistfight the Pope. But it bothers me, because it suggests Ubisoft is prepared to jettison its own fiction in service of a gimmick that, from what I played, doesn't really work. Assassin's Creed games, from their inception, have been about motion. Altaïr ran across the rooftops of Jerusalem, Ezio clambered up the ruins of Rome, and Kenway crept silently through Caribbean plantations. Motion is at the heart of the series, and so it feels strange to be controlling a character whose superpower is triggered by standing still.
I'm playing a "black box" mission set in the Tower of London. My primary goal is to murder a Templar, but to do that I can choose one of three different opportunities. I decide to free a hostage who can rally the Royal Guard for an assault on the tower itself. On my way to his cell, I get a chance to try Syndicate's other new power: a rope launcher. If you've played an Assassin's Creed game, you'll be aware of the slightly off-kilter way their freerunning works. It's fine, for the most part, but occasionally will misinterpret where you want to go. The rope launcher is similarly affected, in that it sometimes launches me onto the roof of the building behind the direction I was facing. Inconsistencies aside, it's a nice addition, and can additionally be fired downwards to create ziplines on the fly. It's a useful tool for traversing wide gaps.
Slipping into the building, it's time to get crouching. Maybe it's impatience, or the chaotic nature of being plunged directly into this demo mission, but I don't take to it. Crouching whenever a guard turns around seems unnatural, and the combat is simple enough that there doesn't seem any need to wait for them to look away. Instead, I decide to just stab everyone. Doctor Who's Weeping Angels could learn a trick from me. As I move on the Templar target, I try to get creative—using hallucinogenic darts to send a guard into a frenzy that will distract the room and let me move in for a quiet kill. I don't find out if my plan would work. During the ensuing chaos, a group of Royal Guards battle their way into the room and kill her themselves. That's why I freed the hostage, I guess, but it was a bit anticlimactic all the same.
Assassin's Creed games have always worked best for me when they've concentrated on doing a few things really well; be that freerunning, 'social stealth', or just being a pirate. My worry for Syndicate is that the series is again becoming bloated—throwing in lots of new ideas in place of any broad innovation. It looks beautifully detailed, but I'm concerned that, as a sandbox, it's being loaded up with gimmicks. My only hope is they don't affect the core of the game. After all, Assassin's Creed: Revelations was pretty good, despite all that tower defence stuff.